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Master Croatian Small Talk Without Speaking the Language

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By Andrea Pisac

You are an expat in a new country and don’t speak the local lingo? Croatia Week’s new guest blogger Andrea Pisac, star of Zagreb Honestly, shares her tips on getting by making chit-chat in Croatia as a foreigner…

I’m a very shy person. Mingling with people at social events used to make my palms sweat. I’d feel isolated, wondering what on Earth was wrong with me. Then I moved to London. From the first interaction I had at my University I felt a sudden change. People asked me questions, strangers introduced me to more strangers – all of them smiling and interested in what life was like where I came from. ‘You’re a published writer, how amazing’ was the line I enjoyed most. I was in heaven. There was nothing wrong with me after all.

Small talk – big gain

Small talk is THE most important element of social life. Everywhere you go, you’ll notice that chatting and jabbering are the glue that keeps people together: it reflects their cultural values, it reproduces their social norms and it gives their participants a sense of shared reality. Basically, if you know how to engage in everyday small talk, you feel accepted: you belong.

What small talk does for you might be the same worldwide, but how small talk is done varies a great deal. Why did I feel out of place at Croatian social events? Because I wasn’t aware of the rules of Croatian small talk. Not until I experienced small talk in London. This taught me that every culture ‘talks’ differently. And that to really become part of a place, I should learn the ropes of small talk. You can do the same, and without speaking the language.

Croatian small talk: the most valuable asset for a foreign traveller (and shy locals)

If you’re a foreign traveller in Croatia, you probably want to connect with local people. Many tourists feel sad for not being able to make friends in Zagreb. Time might be too short and my guess is you’re not YET proficient in Croatian small talk. Keep reading and I’ll teach you the basics.

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The structure of storytelling

Think of small talk as a story. There’s the plot, characters, general mood and the main message. I’ll walk you through them – backwards.

1. Croatian small talk allows people to bond.

They’ll sit for hours in a coffee shop and talk about different things with no particular conclusion. They’re not necessarily sharing important information (in fact they might go over the same old stuff for the hundredth of time) and they’re certainly not solving a problem. The main message of every story they say to each other is this: we’re all in this together.

This is why it’s crucial you tune into the story’s mood. So you’re in this together as well.

2. Pick any topic you like, the overwhelming mood in Croatian small talk is complaining.

If you’re coming from a Protestant background, your solution-oriented mind will go into overdrive. All you’ll hear is problems, problems, problems… All you’ll want to do is offer solutions, solutions, solutions… Please DON’T! Complaining mood is a culturally specific mode of expression – not a call for action.

Croats use complaining merely to cover everyday topics: from personal ‘my husband came late last night’, to environmental ‘look what they’re doing to our coast’ to universal ‘life sucks and there’s nothing we can do about it’. When you hear your new Croatian friend complain, offering practical help might confuse them or send them into a defence mode. You stop belonging then. Instead, you should feel happy for being offered a way in: just be a careful listener, nod and offer similar complaints from your own life.

3. Every story has a hero and a villain.

A hero is not always a brave winner nor is a villain always a jerk. Literary studies have proved that some cultures feel more comfortable identifying with winners and some with victims. How weird! Croatian small talk abounds with heroes who are victimised in more than one way. Which, of course doesn’t stop them from being utterly likeable. You’ll hear these common figures of victimisation:

NATURE VS NURTURE

Croats think their country is the most beautiful in the world. Croatia is also a cradle of worlds’ top geniuses: think of sportsmen like Goran Ivanisevic and Drazen Petrovic, or scientists like Nikola Tesla BUT…

Nothing works in Croatia because of the people who run it. Infrastructure is shit, unemployment is through the roof, there’s no work ethics, corruption is everywhere. So all the natural beauty will either be left undiscovered or ruined; great talents and educated minds will leave Croatia and find prosperity abroad. Don’t try to contradict the storyteller, offer a similar shitty story from your country.

IT’S EASY FOR THEM

If you mention an isolated example of something actually going right in Croatia (a natural talent succeeding in spite of shitty conditions), you’ll probably hear another type of complaint: it’s easy for them, they… a) have political connections; b) have a rich uncle in America… c) don’t have to raise 3 children. The excuses are countless and can be very imaginative. What the storyteller wants is to remain in the victim role. Don’t try to fix them, just bond with them.

YOU’RE SO HORRIBLE BUT WE LOVE YOU ANYWAY

Gossiping about other people is a building block of Croatian small talk. It might shock you to hear personal stories about someone you don’t know. Who sleeps with whom (jerk!), how much someone earns (bitch!), awful things someone’s mother-in-law said or did (cow!). You assume your storyteller is talking about their worst enemy. When only moments later, you realise it’s their best friend. Will they gossip about me in the same way, you wonder. They probably will. But don’t fret, really. Croats gossip most about the people they care about. Or people they envy most. In either case, it’s an expression of love and closeness. So don’t tell them it’s not nice to gossip.

4. The plot of the story is what keeps you engaged.

But just like in literature, everyday conversations have trends that change over time. It’s almost like knowing what are the most influential hashtags on Facebook or Twitter. So how will you know for sure what’s trending in Croatian small talk? Easy – let your local storyteller speak first. You’ll soon realise which topics are hot. And one thing you can be sure about: it’s not ‘how we survived the homeland war’. Nowadays, Croats are concerned either about their personal problems, leisure activities (travel, food, sports) or global economic and political events.

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One last thing to keep in mind

Croatian small talk is an answer-lead storytelling. This means that your storyteller will enjoy answering your questions about their country, family or work. If you’re coming from an Anglophone tradition, this will feel like a natural match. Just don’t expect them to reciprocate, or at least not to the same extent. If by the end of your coffee you’re still asking and not answering questions, don’t assume your new Croatian friends aren’t interested in you. They just small talk in a different way. Also, don’t be offended if they don’t introduce you to a new person who has just joined your table. To them it doesn’t look strange that you’re sitting together without being involved in the conversation.

If you lasted 2-3 hours over coffee, or sailed through a party without being left in the corner – congratulations! You’re an expert in Croatian small talk. And you didn’t even have to learn a single word of the language.

About Andrea Pisac
My surname Pisac says it all – Pisac means a writer in Croatian. Born in Croatia, I’m a fiction writer and an anthropologist. By default I look at ordinary things, places and events from unusual perspectives. I lived in London for 10 years where I finished a PhD in anthropology. Learning about new people and places is my passion and profession. I spent a lot of time exploring Central Europe, its literary past and present and especially the questions of free speech expression. When I returned to Zagreb, I found myself in a unique position – I become both an insider and an outsider. I get to question basic things even more! Seeing my native city with a new set of eyes is a great asset for being a perfect Zagreb host. I know Zagreb’s nook and crannies but I also show my guests ordinary things from extraordinary perspectives. It helps them make the most of their stay in Croatia.

Andrea
Andrea

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22 comments

  1. Great piece! I have been here 3 months now and will try this out:) Croatian is such a difficult language but!Thanks, Rosemary

  2. thanks, Rosey! Good luck with your new skill and let us know how it goes…

  3. Excellent insight Andrea! I can relate 🙂 Thanks – was an interesting read and I hope to put some into practice also:) Problem is expats here in Croatia like to mix together too much.

    • Thank you, Maya! I’m glad my writing relates to the experiences of both expats and locals. People always like to flock together in a new place – not knowing HOW to relate to the locals is one of the reasons why. Fluency in Croatian is only part of the picture – it’s the small talk code that you need to crack, sort to speak. I hope my article helps a bit 🙂

  4. Great read! I’ve never pieced these habits together this way, it makes some of the behavior more easily forgivable 🙂 … I’d love an anthropological look at cutting in line if you’re collecting ideas for future pieces 🙂

    • Jelena – great challenge! I will sure explore the line/queue behaviour in future. I think Croatia Week will publish another piece of mine where I write about customer service in Croatia – something many foreigners have problems with. You are welcome to head over to my Zagreb Honestly blog and look for the post ‘Zen of Visiting Zagreb’.

  5. ‘Pick any topic you like, the overwhelming mood in Croatian small talk is complaining’ hahahaaa sooo true.that and cutting in line you are right 🙂 Nice helpful article. 🙂

  6. Andrea I really enjoyed reading this article. For me the language is something I struggle to learn. Being born in America with Croatian ancestry, I did not realize the importance of learning the language until my later years in life and mostly after meeting family in Croatia a few years ago. My further goal is when I return to know enough of the language to have a basic conversation with family and hopefully hear stories from the older generation. Communication skills are different in Croatia and articles such as this one is extremely helpfully . Thank-you

    • Jim, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Many Croatian people told me the article was a real revelation to them as well. I spent 10 years living and working in the UK and I know that social skills are taught and passed over in a different way there than here. If you’re not by nature very sociable in Croatia, it can be difficult to feel at ease at a party or a gathering. I myself struggled with that – which prompted me to write the article. My anthropological education helps pinpointing things that are usually very subtle and are taken for granted. I really appreciate all of your comments! And Jim, good luck with Croatian language/social skill. 🙂

  7. I love it! I have been to Croatia many times and I speak the language pretty well, grammatical errors aside. Coming from the US at first I didn’t understand the need to complain… I used to make practical suggestions… but those were deflected pretty quickly. Now that I have dual citizenship and own a home there, I don’t want to hear solutions either. I have gone native…. after a good bitch session I see that I can’t change anything… politicians will always be corrupt, I’ll never get a better job or make enough money. HOWEVER, I understand that Croatia is the most beautiful country in the world, populated by the most brilliant and physically perfect people and the object of envy by the entire EU. This knowledge, coupled with an amazing beach and some fine espresso allows me to to go one with my life, in spite of all my troubles…

  8. HA! Thank you Andrea. I too was born in Croatia and speak the language. But, unlike you, I never figured out the complaining and the negativity that goes on. I always tried to show the bright side of things and was quickly dismissed in as “AH, what do you know. anyway.” Your article explains so much. Now I know why every question they ask is in the negative. For example, “You don’t have any coffee, do you?” Instead of, “Do you have any coffee?” Wow. Thank you so much for the enlightenment.

    • Thank you, Sylvia 🙂 Yes, when you get what’s going on underneath the negativity, you’re more inclined to go with the flow. And I guess participating in this way is what makes you belong and feel more at ease!

      • Absolutely right! I tried your approach with my mom this morning. Instead of trying to convince her that the sky is not falling (Chicken Little), I took your approach and complained to her about a car mechanic that was trying to rip me off by telling me if I didn’t change my car battery the battery would explode while I was driving and the car would catch fire. Then I told her that I drove the car, with the same battery for many years after that. Then, she told me a story and I told her another one of mine. All in the complaining negative voice. Guess what? We bounded!

        Instead of me offering solutions, which she didn’t want to hear and would get angry at me and would site reasons why my solutions won’t work, I just joined in with the belly-aching and it worked. Not something I want to do on a regular basis thought as I don’t like negativity and prefer to focus on the solution and how to implement change for the better rather than just complain and do nothing to resolve it. My motto is, “Don’t bring a problem to my attention unless you also bring me the solution.”

        I know my reply is lengthy, so forgive me, but your article opened up a whole new understanding of our people for me! Thank you for that!

        • Sylvia, I truly enjoyed your comment! Wow, you’re the first person who actually came back with results from trying this approach. Bonding is great and the pleasure it gives us makes it OK for us to change the way we’re prepared to do things just a little bit. You’re awesome!

  9. Wow, I am in absolute shock!!! I have basically stopped talking to my cousin, because I couldn’t handle the continual epic saga her daily life is. Something was always on pending doom, there was always someone she was in a fight with (ie:Mother, Sister), or whatever else have you. But now, after your article, it all is perfect sense. No matter what solutions I would suggest, it fell upon deaf ears. And now with this article it makes more sense. But my question is to you, the so-called storyteller, now is it common that they usually don’t let up a breath to let you have a word in edgewise, basically you just nod your head along, and say oh my, really, how could they, I am sorry ect, and you will become the best friend they had ever had? But you cannot vent in the same fashion, and if they do let you vent, and tell you that sucks, and move on back to their pending doom life story, is that correct?

    • Maja, interesting question. I guess it’s up to all of us to decide how much complaining we’re ready to take when it’s purpose is to create intimacy. Sometimes people may go overboard and just talk in circles, without listening to you. At other times it may feel OK, even nice, to vent with no concrete aim in mind. It depends on all our moods, and perhaps individual characters 🙂 My hope was to shed some light on the underlying structure of how people talk. The rest is on us, individual small talkers, to decide what suits us or not. Hope this helps 🙂

  10. Maja and Andrea, I listen to it until I can’t anymore. Then, I just either excuse myself or say, ‘That’s enough, this conversation is stressing me out.’ After all, I don’t want to wound up on anti-depressants just to fit-in to their warped sense of social communication. I do notice, however, that they really only complain if they know you pretty well, not necessarily with strangers. With strangers, they tend to be more upbeat and talk about how beautiful the country is… the best in the world.

    Here’s a story a perfect stranger told me as to why they call Croatia God’s country. When God created the world and was in the process of dividing up the land, he gave Greece to the Greeks, Turkey to the Turks, Italy to the Italians, Germany to the Germans, Sweden to the Swedes, etc. When he was finished dividing all the land among all the nations, the Croats said, But God, what about us? You gave all the land away and now there is none for us. God replied, “That’s because I saved the best for you. You can live on my land.”

  11. This is brilliant. I’ve been here six months, and you masterfully expressed what I have felt in my gut all along. I was really reluctant to say these things to my friends both here and back home because I didn’t want to sound like I was complaining! The irony is hilarious to me now. When I go out tonight, I’m going to bitch up a storm. I might make all sorts of new friends. Now, if you could only explain how I’m supposed to date here (bangs head into wall)…

    • Hi Dan, I’m glad my writing helps a bit – even if only to make you feel you’re not alone in this 🙂 Tell us how the socialising went after you’ve acquired your new skill… and in terms of dating… stay tuned for more, I’ll put the subject on my ‘to write’ list! Thanks for the ideas.

  12. You will have no problems meeting people if your wallet is full!